How can we create safer and more health-conscious workplaces?

08 Mar 2020

In the wake of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak, the question of safety and wellbeing of workers globally rises again. From interior designers and furniture manufacturers to end-users, managers, and employees, this article looks at how all stakeholders can contribute to more health-conscious workplaces and best practices?

Sharing desks, sharing germs

According to the International Data Corporation, by the end of this year, 72% of the global workforce will become mobile.

Due to increased mobility, millions of workers are transitioning daily from traditional “I” assigned spaces to shared “we” spaces. By sharing desks but also collaborating more frequently, workers expose themselves to the millions of microbes on shared work surfaces, be it an open-plan office, meeting rooms, collaborative areas, and cafeterias.

Ten million bacteria, to be precise. According to the research by Dr. Charles Gerba, professor at the University of Arizona, published by Steelcase, office workers’ hands come in contact with 10 million bacteria a day while 80% of infections can be transmitted by touch. Germs live on various surfaces, and office desks are no exception to the rule. “Desktops are among the worst germ traps,” explained Gerba for Steelcase.

Read more: Sharing desks, sharing germs

Sick leaves: Breaking the stigma around taking time off when feeling unwell

The impact of absenteeism due to sick leaves directly affects not only the company’s financial bottom line but also its personnel, so unsurprisingly, 70% of UK workers still come to work when feeling unwell, according to Aviva UK Health.

“Bad health outcomes can lead to poor business outcomes in regard to absenteeism, presenteeism, accidents and increased costs, so there’s been significant focus on prevention,” says Beatriz Arantes, a Steelcase researcher who co-led a recent exploration of worker wellbeing.

Another research by CV-Library states that on average, UK employees (66.4%) take between one to two sick days a year, and of those that do take time off, more than a third feel pressured either by their peers or managers to return to work early.

Read more: Wellbeing: a bottom-line issue

Role and responsibilities: The importance of interior design in disease prevention

Auburn University College of Human Sciences Associate Professor and Interior Design Program Coordinator Lindsay Tan has recently discussed how the design of certain spaces can help contain the outbreak of disease-causing pathogens and their spread throughout indoor environments.

Taking into consideration that on average, we spend more than 90 percent of our time indoors, Tan was also exploring the importance of interior design in disease prevention. 

“Our health is influenced by everything we touch in these interior environments. Disease-causing pathogens can be transferred from person to person, but also through everyday objects—the waiting room chairs at the doctor’s office, the door handle to the breakroom at work, the clipboard passed around at a volunteer event. Being exposed to common viruses and bacteria in this way can help to build up our immune system. When it comes to more severe diseases, though, it is critical to have interior environments that can protect our health by reducing pathogen transmission,” Tan commented.

Looking at the novel coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak on the Diamond Princess, a British luxury cruise ship, which was quarantined last month with almost 3,700 passengers and crew, in Yokohama, Japan, Tan further explained why such environments play a central role in a disease outbreak.

Tan said: “The interior rooms of the Diamond Princess are advertised as being approximately 158 to 162 square feet in size – that’s just a little bit bigger than four single-person handicap-accessible restrooms – but with all of the amenities you would expect in a luxury room. That’s a lot of surfaces to clean in a very small space. And when someone in that room is sick, they are breathing and sneezing and coughing on all of those surfaces.”

However, in hospital environments, as Tan explained, interior designers are obliged to choose materials that meet stringent healthcare requirements and can be easily sterilized and cleaned, such as vinyl flooring with rolled edges, laminated countertops and stainless steel sinks with offset drains.

Read more: Why is it important to consider interior design in disease prevention?


Responsible design: Creating an employee-friendly office

“Research shows that employees who are highly satisfied with their workplace demonstrate positivity and enthusiasm, which is crucial for the growing need of creativity and innovation in projects,” explains Hina Kidwai, senior interior designer at OFIS.

Commenting on the necessity of implementing a more human-centric approach workspace design, Hina says that the companies need to empower their workers to reconfigure their own space to their needs as well as change postures frequently throughout the day.

 “We often talk about the Google-inspired office spaces that are filled with quirky and cool office furniture, but, in many cases, such workplaces fail to consider basic human needs – such as the need for privacy, rejuvenation, and focus. We need spaces that are both welcoming and productive,” adds Hina. 

New technologies: Antimicrobials as proactive prevention in workspaces

Antimicrobials show promise as one of the ways to create health-conscious work environments proactively. Although antimicrobial materials should not replace or decrease regular cleaning routines or good hygiene practices, they can add another level of potential benefit by reducing germs in the workplace, Steelcase reports.

For several years, Steelcase has been exploring antimicrobial technologies and how they fit into the context of worker wellbeing, sustainability, and productivity for employers. Among the array of antimicrobial options, several have the potential for work environments.

A few years ago, Steelcase partnered with a leading innovator in antimicrobials, NanoBioMatters, to develop the use of its BactiBlock® antimicrobial technology for one of their key products - Ology desking. The active ingredient is ionic silver. A durable and long-lasting antimicrobial protection for Ology is molded into desk components that are the most frequently touched areas, such as the power access door, crank, Simple Touch controller, and the soft edge.

Read more: Creating Health-Conscious Environments with Antimicrobial Materials

Find out more about Ology desks: Supporting wellbeing in the workplace

Working remotely: Staying productive and focused

Many global companies in Europe, Asia, and the US are now encouraging their employees to work from home as a precautionary measure. As Business Insider reports, Twitter, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Amazon are now restricting all non-essential business travel to keep the virus from spreading, giving their employees instructions to work remotely for the time being.

Steelcase 360 magazine has recently published another story relevant to the current situation, titled “Making Distance Work” about working remotely.

For some people, working from home is already part of their routine. Still, for many, it’s a new way of working, bringing challenges such as managing work in a small space while being frequently interrupted by children or other family members who are most likely staying at home, too.

Read the full article here: Suddenly working from home?

Here are the 10 main points from the Steelcase article:

1. Decide on your schedule each day and try to stick to it.

2. If you are not at your computer, be sure to communicate that with your colleagues.

3. Think about ways to keep relationships intact while working from home

4. Institute, a quick daily virtual team, connect to keep work moving forward.

5. Take a lesson from agile teams and start a virtual project board.

6. Video should be the default setting for any remote collaboration.

7. If you’re on a video call, close any open applications to preserve computing resources for the video.

8. Avoid rooms with lots of hard surfaces that echo (like a kitchen).

9. Not everyone has a home office, so think about establishing a territory that clearly signals:  “I’m at work.”

10. Look for ways to vary your posture and the spots where you work throughout the day.


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